|Kluttig put a fine burnish on the series finale.|
The curtain on the seven-year run of La bel aujourd’hui (The beauty of today) drew to a fitting close on Tuesday, with German conductor Roland Kluttig leading a large version of the Prague Modern ensemble in a bracing quartet of contemporary works. Among other things, the concert called to mind a once-famous American advertising slogan: “You’ve come a long way, baby!”
Started by then-French Institute Director Didier Montaigné and conductor Michel Swierczewski, the La bel aujourd’hui series was designed to showcase modern music, in particular by Czech composers. Working with the Prague Philharmonia orchestra, Swierczewski served as dramaturgist and musical director, developing a core group of players that was eventually christened Prague Modern. That ensemble anchored the monthly concerts, which featured a lively cast of visiting performers and conductors, as well as evenings with significant Czech composers like Marek Kopelent.
Though still short of Swierczewski’s ultimate goal – a Prague-based modern music ensemble on par with groups like Ensemble Incontemporain and Ensemble Modern – Prague Modern has made impressive strides. Its musicianship, in particular the styles and skills required for contemporary works, has improved steadily. Last year, Prague Modern presented the Czech premiere of Michael Jarrell’s Cassandre, with French actress Fanny Ardant in the title role. And the FAMA Quartet, a string subset of the ensemble, returned just last week from a successful three-concert tour of Romania.
Tuesday’s program opened with a rare treat: Hanns Eisler’s Chamber Symphony for the Film Project White Flood, performed in accompaniment with the film. Eisler composed the piece in 1940 as part of a Rockefeller Foundation-funded study of the relationship between film and music, which gave him an opportunity to demonstrate new ideas in film scoring. The film itself is unremarkable – stock footage of glaciers and their geological effects, with plenty of dramatic calving and ice floes. And as Kluttig took pains to point out, the music is not narrative; it stands fine on its own, without the film.
Seen with the film, however, the score clearly invokes the majestic ice formations and snow-capped mountain peaks, and the thrill of venturing into a dangerous natural setting. Eisler was a student of Schoenberg, and in some ways the music can be taken as a study of how to adapt his twelve-tone technique for a mass medium. The result is remarkably accessible – abstract, yet with enough of the structure and drama of standard film scoring (at that time, anyway) to maintain a firm grounding. And Kluttig handled the piece expertly, even weaving in some fine electronic touches that were part of the original score.
Kluttig also showed a deft touch with Marián Lejava’s Flat Lands and Plains, a slow, predominantly textural work. After a delicate, whisper-soft opening, he built the music to take full advantage of some interesting sound sculptures which unfortunately did not last long, as the piece reverted to long, self-indulgent textural passages.
Local composer and keyboard player Michal Nejtek was at the piano for the premiere of his Sunday Akathisia/Let’s Sing an Akathist, a new work commissioned by Prague Modern. Despite the name, the piece sounded more like modern jazz than a religious hymn, with Nejtek creating a catchy rhythm riff as a counterpoint for a series of jazz-inflected runs, played by a five-piece ensemble that included vibes.
“I love this music!” Kluttig confessed about the finale, Richard Ayres’ NONcerto for alto trombone and sextet. The conductor has recorded Ayres’ work, and has a wonderful feel for its mischievous humor, non sequiturs and sudden outbursts of noise and song. Visiting trombonist Florian Juncker showed finesse with both the music and theatrics, fishing about noisily in a cardboard box for various mutes. But the real star of the piece was Kluttig, who handled the NONcerto’s dizzying turns and variations with aplomb.
The concert closed not just this season but Prague Modern’s seven-year residency at Švandovo, where the rent has become too pricey for shrinking arts budgets. But the ensemble will be back in the fall. With what, exactly, still has not been decided, nor where, though there is talk of setting up shop at the Prague Conservatory’s new performance hall. Wherever and however the new season happens, this is a group worth watching. It’s innovative, imaginative, dedicated and willing to take risks – qualities we could use more of in Prague.
Prague Modern maintains a Facebook page at: http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001527734759&v=info